Sunday, October 19, 2014

The Play's the Thing

The little book that started it all

It's short— 144  7" x 9" pages— and will take you 45 minutes to read. The play based on the book has been performed thousands of times around the world. I saw a delightful local performance this week. It resonates.

The premise behind Ilene Beckerman's 1995 memoir is her life in clothes. Through simplistic, childlike renderings and poignant text, the clothes rekindle memories. Some were related to an event in her life. Some were the clothes that defined a person, like her grandmother. Originally written for her children, with copies given to a few friends, Ilene was completely surprised at interest from a publisher. The book is a constant seller and has been followed by four others in a similar vein.

Ilene Beckerman
A "self portrait"

"Love, Loss and What I Wore" was configured into a play in 2008 by Nora and Delia Ephron, with multiple speaking parts. Ilene's nickname is Gingy, and that's her character. Four other actresses assume multiple roles in mini vignettes and perform as a Greek chorus in segments tagged "Clotheslines", riffing on everything from the color black to what goes on (or doesn't) in fitting rooms.

Ilene's technique was such a simple premise with which to reflect on your own life. We don't all have her gift of recall, but photographs can trigger remembrances. I challenge you to pull out a handful of random photos from the scrapbook. Were the clothes themselves important to you? A special dress for a special occasion? How did that play out? Was the photo taken on just an ordinary day? What do you remember about yourself that day? It can be a revealing exercise.

Here's two from me. I've never forgotten what happened the night I wore that dress. I'd completely forgotten about the snowsuit, and I think you'll understand why.

June, 1948
I was almost six. 
The occasion was a party celebrating my 15-year-old sister's Confirmation, a practice meant to replace bar- and bat- mitzvah's in Reform Jewish congrgations. It entailed a party the size and scope of a Sweet Sixteen. Hers was held at the Wade Park Manor in Cleveland. My parents were not party people— givers or go-ers— so this was a big deal. The dress was a silky jersey fabric (like a good nightgown). Pale, pale blue with a pale pink bow appliqued across the bodice. Beautifully done as I remember not being able to see the stitches that kept it attached. Pale blue silk socks (that kept slipping down), white shoes and, yes, that's a bow in my hair. I was always squinting in pictures as of course you had to face the sun. That night, at the party, I chased an older boy into the men's room. I guess he was trying to get away from me. Or else he really had to go. That incident was the stuff of endless family retelling— and some embarrassment when I was introduced to said "boy" (now 19) years later.

Winter, 1948
Age six and in the first grade.
Squinting but happy. Why? I hated the cold. Maybe I had just gotten out there or maybe it was time to go in? The snowsuit was red and green plaid with yellow accent lines. The matchings pants were green and padded. Fat pants. "Stadium boots"— brown rubber, zipped up the front with a fake fur collar around the edge. Lined in something furry too. I liked them as they looked just like the boots my sister and mother wore. What I had completely forgotten was the buttons. Look closely. A snow suit would have zipped for protection from the elements. But I hated the zipper and could never get the two prongs to line up at the bottom so it would zip up. My teacher got so tired of zipping me in for recess, lunch and going home that she sent me with a note to my mother instructing her to replace the zipper with buttons. Which she did. To this day I kind of sort of hate zippers. At the Lovely Boutique Where I Work I still feel a mini ping of panic when a customer asks for help with a zipper, and I often call for assistance, for someone's "magic touch".

All the world's a stage, and most of us are desperately unrehearsed.
— Sean O'Casey

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